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“Zen Under Fire”: Yoga for humanitarians and peacekeepers

Zen Under Fire
Marianne Elliott in Afghanistan.


While stationed in Afghanistan with the United Nations from the end of 2005 through 2007, human rights advocate and lawyer Marianne Elliott could have gone crazy, surrounded by violence, devastation, and grief. Instead, she found yoga.

“I was suffering from doing the stresses of doing that kind of work. Yoga was something I found to help me do my work and stay healthy,” she says.

Elliott, now a yoga instructor who uses the practice to help others doing good deeds around the globe, details her journey in her book, Zen Under Fire. Yoga, she says, is a unique tool for helping peacekeepers in war zones, aid workers in refugee camps, and other do-gooders who are subjected to serious trauma on the job.

And in July, she helped lead the first “Contemplative-Based Resilience Training for Humanitarian Aid Workers” with renown meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg at the Garrison Institute.

Zen Under FireWhy humanitarians need yoga

While many people find (or search for) fulfillment via humanitarian work, the work itself is uniquely demanding and, frankly, traumatic. Intimate proximity to violence, death, and situations of extreme poverty are very common, which leads to very high burn-out rates.

And the culture among aid workers is one that teaches people to suppress, rather than acknowledge, their emotions, Elliott says. “The humanitarian sector has a tendency to either ignore or deny or repress the feelings that you have in relation to the work that you do. It’s a macho environment. You’re supposed to be tough.”

How yoga helps

Yoga is one tool for chipping away at that culture and offering workers a method for experiencing what they’re feeling. “The practice has given me tools to deal with my emotions as they come up and process them. I don’t have to deny them or ignore them or be stuck,” Elliott explains.

It can also help peacekeepers confront some of the hard questions they encounter every day. “That kind of philosophical practice asks us to be really self-aware and also to ask questions about our motivations and the impact of our work.”

All of which, Elliott believes, will help workers like herself stay strong, healthy, and sane—which will in turn allow them to continue to help those who are truly in need around the world. —Lisa Elaine Held

For more information, visit You can also join Elliott at the Garrison Institute in October for her Creative Joy Retreat, open to all women, not just aid workers.